I recently read Nicholas Miles‘ text on the concept of empowerment and the implications of adopting it as a core principle in the Pirate movement. While I personally find his refutation of Rick Falkvinge‘s idea a quite convincing argument I also noticed two interesting things.
The first thing we should notice is one of the most important principles laying the foundation of Nicholas’ argument namely that
”An act which affects another person in some way against that persons will is an inherently bad act regardless of the net outcome.”.
The immediate objection to this idea would be the last part of the principle, that the outcome of the act cannot legitimise performing this act, because of the fact that it only takes into account one of the affected individuals desires. If for instance we had an act that affected someone against their will it would still be inherently bad even if the net gain in happiness, wealth or whatever quantifier we choose to use as our goal would be greater than zero. This makes the principle unusable for most people subscribing to some form of ethical consequentialism.
The second objection to this principle would be that an individuals opinion on the act is a sufficient condition of the act being bad. This implies that even if you assume that there is universal good, as Nicholas discusses, and the individuals opinion of the act is incorrect with regard to this good the act would still be bad. Nevertheless this objection only serves as an interesting sidenote for further discussion since I, like Nicholas, reject the notion of universal good which is sufficient to adress this problem.
The first objection is however a valid one regardless of such metaphysical quandries and needs a solution. The first one that comes to mind is to qualify the statement further and change the last part of the sentence in a small but critical way.
”An act which affects another person in some way against that persons will is an inherently bad act if and only if the positive results are less than x times larger than the negative results.”
The more mathematically inclined of you can consider this a function if you want to. The big difference of stating it this way is that it allows for differences in the strength of the principle. As an example we might have a person who thinks that the will of an individual is a lot more important than the results of the actions. Then for this person to accept the principle the x needs to be large. Antoher person however may think that the results are a lot more important. Then a smaller x would be required to convince this person of this principle. Indeed one could argue that differences in the choice of x is one of the main distinctions between different flavours of liberalism.
At this point we have come to the core of the problem with the argument. Namely that without some strong form of this principle we cannot arrive at Nicholas’ conclusion using his method. This presents us with a problem. As I alluded to previously this principle is an important idea in liberal thought and would be accepted by most people subscribing to this ideology at some sufficient strength. However to make an argument against a principle in the Pirate movement we must realize that this is not enough because of one simple fact. The Pirate movement is not ideologically grounded in liberalism. The movement as a whole will not accept this principle.
This presents us with a rather unique problem in defining our political philosophy. In defining and discussing important concepts for the movement our arguments need to either be founded on general principles that can be accepted by all members or we need to construct separate arguments for each represented vantagepoint. This provides our ideological thinkers with quite a challenge and I for one hope they are up for it.
Do you remember how I said that I wanted to discuss two ideas inspired by this discussion? Now that the metaquestions of how we need to work and what assumptions were made have been adressed we can focus on actually partaking in the discussion. The case I would like to make is that there exists a need to make a distinction between two kinds of empowerment. The difference between them is if you try to empower individuals or a group. This might seem like a strange divison of the concept but bear with me for a moment.
In this argument we will need to make a few assumptions. We will start with the conclusion Nicholas arrived at, that empowerment of individuals against their will is a bad thing. At this point you might object that I just spent about 600 words picking apart the foundation of his argument but since I happen to be one of the people in the Pirate movement who can accept a suffiently strong principle to justify his argument this isn’t a problem. If you are among those who can’t then consider this argument a theoretical exercise.
Now assume we have a group (Not in the mathematical sense. Strictly speaking this is a set, but I’m trying to make this as simple as possible.) of people called G. We are discussing whether to empower them in some way, like in granting them the vote or equal rights. Most of you will probably agree that this is a good thing, and indeed most of the people in G want this. However there is a small minority in G who are opposed to this idea. We now have three things to take into account.
1. It’s a good thing to empower the group G.
2. Some people in G don’t want to be empowered.
3. It’s an inherently bad act to empower people against their will.
Here we have the hard part. We have a contradiction in our system and that has bad logical implications. There are two main ways to set things right. The easiest way is to simply conclude that one of these premises is false. Personally I dislike this solution since it raises unfourtunate implications when we apply them to a real world situation.
Let’s look at the question of womens suffrage. I believe that most of you would accept (1) in this situation, that it was a good thing to extend suffrage to women. I will also say that (2) is true since there were widespread movements of women opposing this idea. Since we already assumed Nicholas’ argument as a premise we must also consider (3) to be true. In short we have found a situation where we, or at least me/I, are reluctant to refute any of these statements. Thus we need a new solution to the problem.
At this point we reach the second solution and the conclusion I presented earlier. We must consider the concept of empowerment in (1) and the same concept in (3) to be different things or we are still caught in a contradiction. From the statements themselves the only difference between these concepts is whether we apply it on a group or an individual. Then we must conclude that there is a difference in concept between empowerment of a group and empowerment of an individual.
Niklas Dahl is an active member of the Swedish Pirate Party, a member of Ung Pirat’s Executive Board, its Chief of Organisational Developement, and former Chair of Ung Pirat’s Stockholm District. The thoughts expressed here are his private opinions.